Meet the Artist: Conrad Tao

By Connor Reilly '20 | English and Classics Major, September 20, 2019 Meet The Artist, News & Announcements, Student Review, Students

[About an 8 MIN read]

Welcome to our new “Meet the Artist” series! We have some exciting performers on the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center’s Presenting Series this year. We’re asking them to answer some questions about themselves and their art. Knowing what drives an artist, what goes into their thoughts, and their creation makes hearing and seeing what they create even more unique and inspiring.

Our first artist is Conrad Tao, the virtuoso pianist. At only 25 years old, he’s only a bit older than most Notre Dame students, but he is already a world-renowned and highly awarded musician. Here is a look into the hard work and talent that brought him there, in his own words. If you’re a music major—or anyone interested in what a musician thinks about his performance—you will want to read this.

What has been your biggest challenge as an artist?
It sounds banal, but the biggest challenge has been being myself! Which, for me, has often meant confronting fears. These days, when I’m working, if I feel a shiver in the shape of “oh gosh, can I actually do this,” if I feel that spark of potential embarrassment, I take it as a sign that I should keep going, and I try to muster the courage to do so.

“I think it’s really important to not shift into a self-editing mode too hastily …”

What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring artists?
Listen, listen, listen. We try to be really clear about what we’re after when we’re practicing, right? We try to be aware of and intentional about “what we want”—what we’re working towards, what we’re pointing our effort towards. We try to set those goals. I think that equally important is actively listening to what is happening at the moment in the practice room, what is happening there with you in the practice space. Crucially, this includes all of your so-called mistakes.

I like to think of the artistic practice space—whatever that means for you: a desk, a studio, a practice room, a laptop—as a laboratory. Or a garden, or a library. It’s a research space. And in research, you start with a hypothesis, a guiding question, a curiosity, but then you have to dive into the unknown. And that diving is the real research. It’s actually irresponsible—it’s bad science! —to presume you know what the answers to your questions will be. Your conclusions cannot be predetermined before you immerse yourself in the unknown.

So in the practice space, I think it’s really important to not shift into a self-editing mode too hastily, and instead to stay open to, to listen to, the unexpected possibilities for as long as possible. And to then apply rigor and precision to those possibilities, enriching the vocabulary with which you communicate.

What is the most rewarding part of being an artist?
A hugely rewarding part is the friendships that can emerge out of collaborating. I am lucky to have collaborators—among them my piano trio with Stefan Jackiw and Jay Campbell, improviser and vocalist Charmaine Lee, and tap dancer-choreographer Caleb Teicher—with whom I feel a dissolving of ego, all of us in some vibrant constellation of possibilities and responding to one another. These are foundations of mutual respect out of which so much warmth and friendship have blossomed.

How do you define your relationship with the music you play?
There’s a wonderful video featuring writer and musician David Toop on YouTube in which Toop says: “You could argue that sound doesn’t actually exist. It’s always in the state of emerging or decaying. It’s never actually ‘there.’”

This speaks to how I think about music-making: as a simultaneous foraging for and leaving of traces. In notated music, we have the score, a set of encoded particulars chosen by composers. My responsibility as an interpreter of the score is to consider those particulars and weave the threads holding them together. That involves a considerable amount of groping in the dark; it’s hard to describe what that process feels like. But I’m looking and listening for the human on the other side—the composer. And then that doesn’t even get into the dense constellations of other interpreters, scholars, and historical associations that surround many works from the so-called “standard repertoire.” There are traces of countless humans in those constellations, many of them unknowable.

Conrad-Tao-5-credit-Brantley-GutierrezWhen I’m playing newer music, I usually luckily have a living, breathing composer who I can bounce questions off of. But even then, I find the process to be more than simply “executing” composers’ instructions; interpretation is always messier and more vulnerable than that. David Lang once said to me, about his music: “The pieces depend on you bringing something to them. The pieces are a proposal.” So the music is only really enlivened when, in the process of searching for and bringing out the traces of the composer I find in the score, I am sharing some of myself as well.

This is perhaps most evident in improvisation, in which these traces make up the entirety of the music. It is probably thanks to improvisational practice that I most vibrantly hear human traces in sounds “incidental” or “excessive” to the music—the sounds of a string player’s shifts, the collective breathing (or lack thereof) of a concert audience, the microscopic detail of a marching band playing together, the grain in someone’s voice. The various sounds of effort, as it were. All of this evidence of the human: this is what I think of as my material, and this is what I aim to celebrate.

Do you play any other instruments?
I perform as an electronic musician. I also used to study the violin pretty seriously; these days, I improvise and compose with it. Both the violin and electronics have had an influence on how I think about sound and musicality; the violin has given me multiple tangible relationships between sound, breath, and gesture, while electronics open up a more abstract imaginative sonic possibility space that I find inspiringly evocative.

Many, many thanks to Mr. Tao for his incredibly thoughtful answers. To listen to him dazzle Notre Dame with his care and imagination, be sure to get your tickets to his performance on Sunday, September 29, 2019, at the LaBar Recital Hall in the O’Neill Hall of Music.


Related:


Conrad Tao, piano

Conrad Tao has appeared worldwide as a pianist and composer. Cited last season by The New York Times as “one of five classical music faces to watch,” Tao is a recipient of a prestigious Avery Fischer Career Grant and was named a Gilmore Young Artist—an honor awarded every two years highlighting the most promising American pianists of the new generation.


Sunday, September 29, 2019 at 4 p.m.